Henry A. Giroux is a dangerous man. Let me explain how I know that.
Four years ago, a small group of teachers … well, OK, one other one and I … were grousing about the dearth of formal intellectual discourse at our college and, for some undeclared reason, we decided to help fix the problem. Our solution was to host a dinner-discussion with a stimulating guest speaker and, if the evening went well, to make this a regular occurrence.
The evening went well. Despite the fact that we were enduring the worst blizzard of the winter, about fifty people showed up and seemed to enjoy the show. Our special guest was the late David F. Noble (1945–2010). He delivered an inspired and inspiring talk on technology and education. The conversation that followed was splendid too.
For those who do not know or know of him, David had a fascinating career. He lost jobs at places where most of us wouldn't be considered for employment in the first place—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Smithsonian Institution, for example. No one doubted his brilliance, but he annoyed the authorities. At his passing, the physicist Denis G. Rancourt spoke of him as being "arguably the greatest critical historian of science and technology today." As a curator at the Smithsonian, for example, he organized a display of artifacts from the Industrial Revolution. He gave pride of place to a hammer once owned by a leader of the Luddites. The authorities were not amused.
My colleague and I were so jazzed by Noble's talk and the reception it received that we approached the administration about sponsoring a full-day conference, to be called the Faculty Forum. I recommended Henry A. Giroux as the first keynote speaker. To cut to the conclusion, the Faculty Forum was established and it continues on today, but under the gentle guidance of management; and management didn't want to hear about or from Henry A. Giroux. The Faculty Forum now concentrates on promoting technology in the classroom and training new teachers. The question of intellectual stimulation remains unresolved. Neither my colleague nor I are involved in organizing it anymore.
In this instance, Henry A. Giroux may have been passed over in favour of corporate cheerleaders, but he certainly doesn't lack an audience. He shows up in a variety of venues. Within the past year, he has spoken at two other Toronto-area colleges and is pleased to participate whenever a reasonable number of people can be collected to talk about education—from preschool to graduate school. Henry A. Giroux is also among the most prolific writers on education extant today. He has written, edited and otherwise produced dozens and dozens of books. He helps edit and writes a regular column for the alternative Internet website Truthout. He is as at home with a gathering of trade unionists as a bevy of academics. He holds the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is a dangerous man, and an incredibly busy one.
I'd say that the book currently under review, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, is his latest, but there are probably several more in print or in process, with others to follow. It's hard to keep up with him, even at a distance.
Zombie Politics and Culture (for short) links the popularity of zombies in contemporary mass culture with what his publisher calls "the political and pedagogical conditions that have produced a growing culture of sadism, cruelty, disposability, and death in America." Zombies are everywhere that our students are likely to be—in films, videogames and comics and, for the more literary, they are even in books. I'm not sure if they are more popular than vampires or werewolves, but they're no worse than a very close second or third. Henry A. Giroux notices and makes connections.
Like most dangerous people, Henry A. Giroux doesn't mince words either in his professional or polemical work. In fact, sometimes it's hard to distinguish between them. His academic books feign no false objectivity. His populist screeds are jammed with footnotes. His most theoretical academic work and his online blogs are equally critical of current social and educational conditions and trends. When writing about complex topics, his language can be complex as well, but he never uses dense prose for its own sake. When, moreover, he is talking to everyday people about critical issues, he does what popular writers must do in an era when reading books no longer carries the caché that it once did. He knows how to keep it short and simple but not simplistic, and always without a trace of either condescension or an abandonment of the intellectual rigor that guides his project.
The sixteen chapters in Zombie Politics and Culture average just eight pages in length, and that includes ample references and a fair amount of white space (thirteen pages are blank, not counting three at the end). Each chapter is cogent and evidence-based. They are mainly a collection of his Truthout columns.
I mentioned his "project." I should explain. Henry A. Giroux has two main themes that reappear throughout his work, whether he is discussing militarism, neoliberalism, discipline in the classroom or popular entertainments. These are the themes: teaching is a moral act, and teaching is a political act.
Henry A. Giroux believes passionately that primary, secondary and, increasingly, postsecondary education have abandoned their duty to promote education for citizenship, work and the public good. Instead, pedagogy, the labour process of educators, the overall corporate organization and especially "the disciplinary practices of schools resemble the culture of … prisons."
Now, before readers react badly and insist that Giroux is cynical, jaundiced and prejudiced, and that their own workplaces exemplify the ideals of nurturing, youth-friendly environments where the growth and maturation of the student is the focus of all participants from the CEO on down, let it be known that Giroux's main interest is in American public schools. Many of us can claim, therefore, that we are exempt. On the other hand, it would at least be prudent for educators in other jurisdictions and at other levels of education to treat his accounts and assessments as nothing less than cautionary tales. The same processes are already in place everywhere, and they are becoming more and more dominant despite the Orwellian language that is commonly used to disguise the latent functions of most academic institutions.
I have heard other hasty reactions when people discuss Giroux and like-minded critics; namely that his work is biased, jaded, subjective and fails to live up to the standards of disinterested, objective analysis of educational policies and practices. I can only say that no one infuses college curriculum, teaching and learning with more partiality and ideology than people who claim that their teaching is non-partisan or "value-free." Few suppress critical thinking more systematically than those who falsely claim that they teach critical thinking (or as the awful cliché puts it, "thinking outside the box"). In reality, they operate within a closed system of "problem-solving," constituted as the pedagogy of the Rubik's Cube. What is called creativity is most often merely puzzle-solving (finding the best predetermined answer), whereas authentic innovation would include probing boundaries, interrogating assumptions, redefining concepts rather than using a desiccated sort of "critical thinking" as a shriveled substitute for a genuine critical consciousness. True creativity would consider taking the box off the shelf and disposing of its toxic contents.
Henry A. Giroux writes about oppression, repression and suppression. He occasionally tackles depression—both psychological and economic. In this collection, college educators should find his chapters on "The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy," "Zombie Politics and the Challenge of Right-Wing Teaching Machines," and "Brutalizing Kids: Painful Lessons in the Pedagogy of School Violence" particularly stimulating, so to speak. As the back-cover publisher's blurb says, "this book aims to break through the poisonous common sense that often masks zombie politicians, anti-public intellectuals, politics, institutions, and social relations, and brings into focus a new language, pedagogy, and politics in which the living dead will be moved decisively to the margins rather than occupying the very center of politics and everyday life." That pretty much sums it up.
The nicest thing about this book is not just that it carries a strong moral message and helps to rehabilitate the concept of politics which has been so grievously degraded in recent decades, but that it does so in a manner that allows college students to comprehend what's going on. This is a book students can read, and may even want to. Corporate happy talk is no longer convincing, but many young people lack the historical understanding and critical insight to locate the source of their anxieties and of the foreboding that they "feel," but too seldom analyze, much less theorize. This book would help.
True, the "Occupy" movement may hint at an inchoate but potentially powerful response to contemporary problems, not least the bill of goods that's been sold to college-age students about the state of the economic, ethical and environmental issues that will confront them in the coming decades. Setting such matters in a proper context is essential, and helping students to frame their questions and test their answers properly is the overriding obligation of educators in the early twenty-first century.
In two chapters entitled "No Bailouts for Youth: Broken Promises and Dashed Hopes" and "Youth Beyond the Politics of Hope," Giroux comes clean with the kids about the real causes of the 2008 Wall Street debacle and the degradation of democracy that defines political life today. In doing so, he helps sort out the pattern that connects the arrogance of power to the suffering of people. He does it well. He speaks with moral authority and political awareness. He paints a picture of despair, to be sure, but in doing so he buries the empty admonition to "think positive" and the corporate rhetoric about "flexibility." He calls out those encouraging the rush to the bottom. It's a necessary first step toward turning our society around. As I said, Henry A. Giroux is a dangerous man.
Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org